THE RUSH IS ON
The sack--and defending against it--is more important than ever
This is an article from the Sept. 21, 1998 issue
The sack has become such a devastating weapon that last week, in
preparation for a game against the Chiefs and their speed-rushing
sack artist Derrick Thomas, the Jaguars alternated a defensive
end and a wide receiver across the line from left tackle Tony
Boselli to simulate Thomas's strength and quickness. Thomas was
coming off a six-sack destruction of the Raiders in Week 1, and
when the Chiefs arrived at their Jacksonville hotel last
Saturday, adoring fans gave him a reception worthy of a rock
The importance of the pass rush--and defending against it--has
grown to the point that the victor in this test of AFC playoff
contenders was likely to be determined by the winner of the
Thomas-Boselli matchup. As it turned out they went one-on-one 33
times, and Thomas had no sacks of Jaguars quarterback Mark
Brunell. The 322-pound Boselli used his 75-pound weight advantage
and quick feet so effectively that Thomas was never close to
getting a sack. Final score: Jaguars 21, Chiefs 16.
When the war was over, the two players slapped hands. Head down,
Thomas went to his locker room. Boselli--not Brunell or
100-yard-rusher James Stewart--did an on-field interview with CBS
and got the kind of attention the best left tackle in the game
deserves. "Derrick's a great player, one of the best in history,"
Boselli said, with grass still stuck to his arms as he lounged at
his locker afterward. "I'm proud of how we played today."
Thomas, whose seven sacks during a 1990 game against the Seahawks
remains an NFL record, appears to be in the prime of his career
and a threat to eclipse the league's single-season and career
marks. But whose records is he really chasing? The NFL didn't
begin keeping team sack yardage until 1963, and it wasn't until
'82 that the league started tracking individual takedowns. With
113 1/2 career sacks, Thomas ranks ninth alltime.
Not so fast, says John Turney, a 34-year-old football fanatic
from Alamogordo, N.Mex. Because he grew up idolizing defensive
linemen, Turney in 1992 began an exhaustive project, studying
play-by-play summaries from every NFL and AFL game from 1958
through '81 to identify the league's true sack leaders. The
Packers' Reggie White, with 179 1/2 career sacks, remains the
official NFL sack king, but Thomas ranks only 20th on Turney's
Regarding the single-season record, the league recognizes the 22
takedowns by Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau in 1984, but by
Turney's count, former All-Pro defensive end Deacon Jones also
racked up 22 in 1964 and '68 (chart, right).
Likewise, the 59-year-old Jones believes he belongs in the
record book. "I'm the most devastating pass rusher the league's
ever seen, but who would know that today?" says Jones, whom
Turney credits with 173 1/2 sacks during a 14-year career with
the Rams, Chargers and Redskins. "It hurts. It hurts me deeply
that my numbers, and the guys I played with, aren't recognized."
Jones, who is recuperating from recent surgery for prostate
cancer, may be fighting a lost cause on the sack front. The Elias
Sports Bureau, the league's official statistician, says the
amount of time required to research individual sacks makes such a
Regardless, Jones believes it will only be a matter of time
before Thomas eclipses the single-season and career sack records.
"If teams keep single-blocking him," Jones says of Thomas, "he
could get 40 some year."
As long as he doesn't have to face Boselli every week.
MARINO'S TD MARK SAFE
Watching Mark McGwire break the major league home run record on
TV, Packers quarterback Brett Favre couldn't help thinking of pro
football's parallel record. In 1984 the Dolphins' Dan Marino
threw 48 touchdown passes, shattering the record of 36 (held
jointly by George Blanda and Y.A. Tittle). Two years later Marino
threw 44. No other player has had as many as 40. Favre has come
the closest, with 38 and 39 in the '95 and '96 seasons,
"As long as it took to break Roger Maris's record [37 years],
that's how long it'll take someone to break Marino's," says
Favre. "First of all, you've got to be healthy for 16 weeks. How
many quarterbacks went down in Week 1? Seven? Then you've got to
throw three touchdowns every week; if you get two one week,
you've got to get four the next week to catch up. A couple of
years ago [in 1996, when he had 20 touchdown passes after six
games] I had a chance, but then Mark Chmura, Antonio Freeman and
Robert Brooks all got banged up. So not only do you have to be
healthy, but your supporting cast does too."
Bucs' Road Trip
THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
As the prayer circle formed in the middle of Lambeau Field after
the Battle of the Bays on Sunday, Packers defensive end Reggie
White draped an arm around Trent Dilfer. By then the sight of the
Buccaneers quarterback in the embrace of the Minister of Defense
was very familiar: White sacked Dilfer three times in Green Bay's
23-15 win, and now he thoughtfully petitioned the Almighty to
grant the visitors safe passage home.
To this the Tampa Bay players would respond with a resounding
"Amen!" The loss at Lambeau, where the Bucs have not won since
1989, marked the end of a grueling road stretch. With the club's
new Raymond James Stadium still under construction, Tampa Bay was
forced to play all five preseason games and the first two
regular-season games on the road. Team brass had tried to line up
preseason games in Orlando and Tallahassee, Fla., but those plans
never materialized because the Bucs were reportedly looking for
large sums of guaranteed money. The NFL stepped in and placed an
Aug. 8 game against the Chiefs in Norman, Okla. Unfortunately
that turned out to be the eve of the Northwest pilots' strike,
and the Bucs wound up sitting on the tarmac at the Oklahoma City
airport at 2 a.m., three hours after losing to Kansas City. The
team didn't get home until 2:20 that afternoon.
Dilfer, who was the bright spot in Tampa Bay's otherwise
grotesque 31-7 loss to the Vikings in Week 1, regressed on
Sunday. Although he was not intercepted, the quarterback lost
three fumbles, the first of which set up Green Bay's first
touchdown. Dilfer is now 1-8 against the Packers, against whom he
has thrown three touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
"Everyone's going to want to bash Dilfer," said Green Bay
defensive tackle Santana Dotson, "but he's not the problem."
Dotson pointed out that the Tampa Bay offense works only when it
can establish the run, and in their first two games the Bucs have
a total of 118 yards on the ground and a paltry 2.8-yard average.
Particularly worrisome for the Bucs has been the performance of
Mike (the A Train) Alstott. After spraining his left hip in June,
the third-year fullback has looked ponderous, gaining just 22
yards on 13 carries in the first two games combined.
Such sorry stats may depress the market for Alstott's A Train
whistles, which will be on sale this weekend when Tampa Bay plays
host to the Bears. "I'll tell you what," said defensive tackle
Warren Sapp of his new home field. "It's going to be a welcome
sight." --Austin Murphy
ON THE VERGE OF GREATNESS
What a difference a year makes. In 1997 rookie offensive tackle
Orlando Pace, the first pick in the draft, held out of Rams
training camp for 33 days, finally reported at 345 pounds after
receiving the richest bonus ($6.3 million) in club history and,
upon his arrival, did countless interviews. As his second season
dawned, he got a speeding ticket on his way to camp, was mostly
ignored by the media (a great thing for this shy and gentle
giant) and is the lightest he has been since his freshman year in
high school. "I'm 308 today," he says proudly.
"If he isn't the best tackle in football in two years," says
coach Dick Vermeil, "I'll be totally shocked." If his preseason
is any indication, Pace might get to the top even faster. His
quick feet were more than a match for the defensive ends he
faced, and his drive-blocking remained formidable. On one down
against Dallas, Pace drove 285-pound Cowboys rookie defensive end
Greg Ellis six yards across the field and into the ground. Such
plays dispelled the notion that a slimmer Pace had lost some
strength. "Some guys are 340 with 40 pounds of blubber," says
Rams offensive line coach Jim Hanifan. "But you're not blocking
with your blubber. You block with your thighs and butt, with good
technique. He's got all of that."
ALL OF HIS BREAKS WERE BAD ONES
Sometime in the next few weeks, the Saints will put quarterback
Heath Shuler on injured reserve because of a career-threatening
injury to his left foot. It is possible that Shuler will never
play again because of a shattered bone in his foot and the
resulting nerve damage. That he even lasted the '97 season under
New Orleans coach Mike Ditka was a surprise.
Of the 33 quarterbacks who threw 200 or more passes last season,
Shuler had the lowest rating. He even got fired--for a few
minutes. During the game in which Shuler injured his foot (last
Nov. 9, against the Raiders), Ditka was so enraged after his
quarterback missed an open receiver that he screamed at Shuler on
the sideline, "You're done! You're fired! I never want to see you
Soon Ditka's wish will come true, and the third pick in the 1994
draft, by the Redskins, will go down as one of the biggest busts
in NFL history.
THE DEFENSE RESTS IN DETROIT
Worst defensive stat through two weeks: On third down the Lions
have allowed opposing passers to complete 20 of 24 attempts for
344 yards and three touchdowns....
Atlanta is 8-2 in the last 10 regular-season games that
quarterback Chris Chandler has started and finished. The Falcons
are solid defensively, but they'll contend for a wild card only
if Chandler can remain healthy....
The NFL will kick off the '99 season on Sept. 12, a week after
ratings-poor Labor Day weekend, and the league will discuss next
month whether to make the move a permanent one....
After two games the Cardinals' Jake Plummer has been sacked nine
times, thrown three interceptions and virtually invited teams to
tee off on him. "If I was playing me," said Plummer, who was
sacked seven times in a 33-14 loss to the Seahawks, "I'd blitz
the hell out of me."...
By a vote of his peers last season, the Chiefs' Mike Stock was
named NFL special teams coach of the year, edging the Jaguars'
Larry Pasquale. In Sunday's meeting between the teams,
Jacksonville had an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown, a
39-yard punt return and a 65-yard kickoff return....
This week Browns president Carmen Policy interviews 58-year-old
George Seifert for the club's coaching job, but don't expect
Cleveland to hire someone until all the other candidates become
available in January. Look for Broncos offensive coordinator
Gary Kubiak and Steelers defensive coordinator Jim Haslett to be
among the finalists....
After blowing opportunities with the Buccaneers, Redskins and
Saints, wideout Alvin Harper is dying to get back into the game.
The league leader in average yards per catch (24.9) in 1994 with
the Cowboys, he caught a total of only 67 passes for a 14.7-yard
average during the last three years with Tampa Bay and
Washington. Now he's training hard on his own in hopes of
getting another shot....
The Giants pushed back the knee surgery on cornerback Jason
Sehorn a month, to Sept. 22, because they didn't want the
impatient Sehorn rushing his rehabilitation in an attempt to
return this season, as Rod Woodson did with the Steelers three
The End Zone
CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR
Chris Liwienski was a seventh-round draft pick of the Lions last
April. A guard out of Indiana, he is now trying to make a name
for himself as a member of the Vikings' practice squad.
Liwienski's last name sounds the same as that of a certain former
White House intern, leading several teammates to call him Monica.
"It's kind of cool," says Liwienski. "Now people know how to
pronounce my name."
Send your pro football questions to Peter King's Mailbag and read
more from Paul Zimmerman at www.cnnsi.com.
A CASE FOR THE DEACON
According to Alamogordo, N.Mex., gift-shop owner John Turney, Pro
Football Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones (above) had
three of the top six pass-rushing seasons in the past 40 years.
What's more, with 173 1/2 career takedowns, Jones would rank
second to Reggie White (179 1/2) on the alltime sack list. Here
are the top sack seasons since '58, as determined by Turney.
Player, Team Season Games Sacks
Deacon Jones, Rams 1964 14 22
Deacon Jones, Rams 1968 14 22
Mark Gastineau, Jets 1984 16 22
Coy Bacon, Bengals 1976 14 21 1/2
Bubba Baker, Lions 1978 16 21 1/2
Deacon Jones, Rams 1967 14 21
Reggie White, Eagles 1987 12 21
Chris Doleman, Vikings 1989 16 21
1. Injury Epidemic. Two weeks into the season and already 10
starting quarterbacks, including three of the game's best passers
(Troy Aikman, John Elway, Brad Johnson); one of the best guards,
the Chiefs' Dave Szott; both Jaguars starting defensive ends,
Tony Brackens and Jeff Lageman; and both Eagles first-string
corners, Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent, have been sidelined by
injuries. It makes you wonder how big a toll the wear and tear of
the lengthy preseason takes on players.
2. Mitchell Watch. After forging a 28-28 tie with the Bengals on
Sunday, the Lions had two more chances to win. Scott Mitchell to
the rescue! Interception, interception. Cincinnati won on the
fourth play of overtime when cornerback Corey Sawyer returned the
second pick 53 yards for a touchdown. It's only a matter of time
before Mitchell, the man Detroit fans love to hate, is benched
for rookie Charlie Batch.
3. Commitment to Chaos. The Raiders were flagged for 16 penalties
in their home opener, a 20-17 win over the Giants in front of
22,718 empty seats. After two weeks Oakland has been called for
31 infractions, 10 more than any other team in the league.